By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 24 February 2020)
Living with a spacious lawn filled with ancient trees, lush scrubs, rows of ornamental flowers and grass regularly mowed and manicured by diligent gardeners all might sound like heaven to many people.
Leo Coimbra isn’t complaining by any means, although being married to the Brazilian ambassador does mean that luscious land doesn’t belong to her or her husband Fernando. It’s property of the Brazilian government.
Nonetheless, Leo says she, with her three gardeners, have transformed the garden in the two years that they’ve been living there. They planted a rainbow array of flowers and fruit trees.
“I have a small garden back home in Brasilia,” she says as she gives us Portuguese names for some of the trees planted around their spacious five-bedroom house.
For instance, the giant tree with red flowers on its top tips is ‘Xixi de Macaco’ which she says is translated as ‘Monkey’s Pee’, for whatever reason she cannot explain.
Her other high-flying tree with yellow flowers is called ‘Sibipiruna’ and the one with spikey leaves growing nearer the family’s driveway is a ‘Palmeira de Madagaskar’.
Since arriving in Kenya in January 2018, Leo has quickly expanded her English vocabulary and fluency. But she has yet to learn English terms for the trees in her garden.
What she does know is that she has planted several avocado and mango trees to augment the other edible fruit trees that grow in the garden, such as the guava, pawpaw and banana trees.
“But I’ve never eaten an avocado, mango or pawpaw from the garden,” she admits. The same is true for the bananas and guavas. She does get plenty of lime from the two trees she planted with assistance from their three gardeners, Benson Okumu, Johnson Omari and Bevin Kimaiga.
“It’s the monkeys,” she says simply. She admits however that the avocado trees are so tall that their fruits wouldn’t be easy to harvest, in any case.
Benson explains that the monkeys keep their eyes on those fruit trees and gobble up the mangos, pawpaws and avocados right when they have ripened perfectly. “They normally don’t come during the day. We leave work at 5 o’clock and the monkeys time us,” he adds.
They arrive between 5:15 to 5:30 which is after the gardeners go and before Fernando arrives home.
“They come as a large family,” observes Leo who often sees them arrive in large numbers when she is at home working. Clearly reconciled to never eating fruits from her garden, she says the monkeys don’t bother her in the least.
“But unless I close all the windows and doors, they will come in,” she adds, noting that once she walked into her kitchen and found one blithely eating an egg. He didn’t even bother to leap back out the kitchen window until he’d finished his mini-feast.
“He hadn’t done any damage to the kitchen.” Leo says. “But as I had the eggs covered and on a tray outside the fridge, he had managed to open the container and take the one egg out,” she adds, noting how intelligent these Sykes monkeys are.
The one yellow-green fruit that the monkeys don’t touch is what the Portuguese call ‘Chuchu’. It’s actually a vegetable shaped like a pear and having a similar texture and seed structure.
“Chuchu’s are rather tasteless, but just as tofu is tasteless but easily absorbs the flavor of whatever food they are being cooked with, chuchu’s are similar,” she says.
Noting that since coming to Kenya she rarely cooks. “We have an excellent kitchen staff,” Leo says although she often gets herbs and spices from their kitchen garden to enhance the flavor of a specific dish. But back home in Brazil, she adds that she loves to cook and has no hired help.
Their vegetable garden also grows spinach, kale, onions, beetroot, eggplant and potatoes successfully. “But the tomatoes can be a problem,” notes Johnson.
“Whatever grows in the garden is shared by everyone,” Leo says although she admits she prefers the staff eat from the garden during working hours and not carry things home. “Otherwise, there will be none left for us,” she adds.
Besides veggies, the garden also grows thyme, chives, mint, rosemary and parsley. And a Kenyan garden wouldn’t be complete without at least one jacaranda, acacia and bougainvillea bush.
The one tree the gardeners know well is the mwarubaini which is said to cure over 40 diseases, everything from typhoid and malaria to amoeba and ulcers.